Saltburn: A Film of Extravagant but Nonetheless Thoroughly Enjoyable Indulgence


James Clay (he/him) reviews Emerald Fennel’s new comedic psychological thriller

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By James Clay

When I left the cinema and tried to think about how to write this review, I wasn’t entirely sure where to start. As the film begins, one naively presumes it is going to be a commentary upon the rampant social class divisions that still persist in 21st-century Britain, but as the film develops, it very quickly becomes a psycho-thriller about love, sex and murder all humorously wrapped into one.

It is worth briefly outlining the basic tenet of the film. Oliver, played by the just about young Barry Keoghan, begins his first term at Oxford University surrounded by seemingly overprivileged undergrads with nothing better to do than to flaunt their snobbishness like a peacock. Oliver then attaches himself to the resident posh cad Felix Catton, played by the infuriatingly handsome Jacob Elordi, who invites him to his country house for the summer. Upon arrival, Oliver inserts himself as this apparently innocent plaything for the Catton family. As the film develops, one doesn’t quite know who is manipulating whom and which of them will be the unfortunate soul to end up dead by the end of the film. It is an exotic and indulgent combination of Brideshead Revisited, The Adams Family and Inside No.9. 

For anybody vaguely aware of 20th-century English literature, comparisons can immediately be drawn with the whimsical elite world so vividly characterised by any Evelyn Waugh novel, in particular Brideshead Revisited. Unquestionably this must have been a considerable aspect of Emerald Fennel’s source of inspiration. Both stories are about an outsider being submerged into the world of mindless excess and privilege beyond belief. Brideshead, though, is thoughtful and reflective, whereas Saltburn is just one piece of dramatic bombast after another.

What is interesting to note is that Fennell decides to completely ignore the significant religious aspect of Brideshead Revisited, that being the Catholic faith of the Flyte family. Perhaps this is simply a response to the fact that we now live in an overwhelmingly secular age, still obsessed with class but less so faith. Alternatively, the moral seriousness of most involved would make any reference to religion rather untenable.

As an undoubtedly privileged individual herself, Fennell manages to make one feel a degree of sympathy for the Catton family, despite their extreme wealth and apparent lack of certain basic human decencies. Fennell pushes English emotional repression to levels probably unseen on screen before, which makes one wonder whether the characters are just so wealthy that they are incapable of dealing with traumatic albeit normal human events. Unfortunately, this interesting exploration of the psychology of class gets drowned out by the spectacle and farce of later scenes.

For a film that isn’t primarily comedic, the occasional one-liners really do land well, particularly given how the subject matter manages to get darker and darker after every other scene. Rosamund Pike as the whimsical yet tragic Elspeth Catton and Reece Shearsmith, as Ollie’s academic tutor, stand out as notable characters in their moments of occasional light relief. Even intentionally funny lines about death are enjoyable without questioning one’s moral compass.

One aspect which deserves considerable credit is the restrained approach Fennell took to placing narration to previous scenes. So many films are ruined by wasting too much time with characters talking about the events of said film retrospectively. Saltburn though managed to pitch this with the right amount of backward-looking narration, just enough time to drop hints but not so much that the film seemed stilted.

Fennell clearly set out directing the film with OTT as her modus operandi which, for the most part, makes it perfectly fine. That being said, one wonders whether she had too much fun indulging in scenes of perverse and grotesque imagery. There isn’t necessarily anything wrong with pushing the boundaries of what appears on the big screen, but the odd scene, line of dialogue, or film location could have been toned down somewhat. This would have helped to embellish the more relatable human side of the film, which occasionally seemed subsumed in the absurdity of it all.

Sadly, another area which perhaps let the film down was the ending. Like in so many other films, the climax is mistimed and one is sitting there wondering whether or not it is about to come to an end or whether there is going to be another greater climax. This was a shame because it was going very well until then, but for a relatively new director, the mistake is a forgivable one.

Despite the final third, the film is highly recommendable. However, one should be warned that certain scenes are not comfortable viewing for everyone. It is also a film that I suspect would appeal to a variety of different audiences, given the varied and intertwining themes.

Editor’s note: The tickets were provided by City Screen York. In the heart of York, City Screen is an award winning Student Friendly Cinema showing the latest and greatest films! With Live showings from the Royal Opera House and blockbuster hits, to their specially curated Discover, and Culture shock showings, there’s something for everyone at City Screen! With their free U25 membership you can get £4.99 Tickets all day Monday-Thursday! In the café-bar and restaurant, there’s a relaxing environment for studying, getting together with friends and family, or just enjoying some food and drink that’s bound to leave you wanting more. And with a student membership you can save 25 percent on all food and drink purchases across the Cinema and Café-Bar! For more information, visit theirhere.